DeMarcus Cousins will debut on Friday at the center of the basketball universe, playing in front of a celebrity-sprinkled crowd in Los Angeles and a global television audience that still can't believe he signed last summer with the back-to-back champion Golden State Warriors.
To prepare for this moment after missing nearly a year with a torn left Achilles' tendon, the four-time all-star center traveled to a funky outpost on the central California coast whose downtown is dotted by surf shops, bong emporiums and wellness studios. There, he found the Kaiser Permanente Arena, a no-frills, 2,500-seat gym surrounded by the San Lorenzo River, an auto shop and a Walgreens. The arena was built in 2012 and, according to local lore, went up in just 78 days. Unlike the half-billion-dollar palaces of professional teams, it cost roughly $10 million and once housed a women's roller derby squad. For the past two and a half years, the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State's G League affiliate, have played to a packed house. "It's a mini-Oracle Arena," said guard Damion Lee, who has logged time for both Golden State and Santa Cruz this year.
Lee's name is included on a banner near the building's main entrance: "Santa Cruz Warriors: NBA Call-Ups." The nondescript sign is a badge of honor for the minor-league franchise and a naked reminder to its players: The G League is intended to be a launchpad, not a destination. For the undrafted prospects and journeymen who live in a nearby hotel for the six-month season, the road to the NBA runs through here.
In recent years, though, G League teams have increasingly hosted high-profile NBA players returning from injury such as Cousins, whose $18.1 million contract in 2017-18 was more than 500 times greater than the standard G League salary of $35,000. These "rehab assignments" are a marriage of convenience, pairing NBA players coming off injuries with pro-level competition that can mimic the speed and physicality of the big league without taxing actual NBA players during the middle of their season.
This rise in rehab assignments is a helpful barometer for the G League's growth. Since its founding in 2001, the G League has expanded from eight teams to 27 teams, and formalized the relationships between NBA teams and their minor-league affiliates. Rather than sharing far-flung affiliates with other teams as they did in the past, most NBA teams now operate their own G League teams in one-to-one relationships. This trend has allowed NBA teams greater control over style of play on the court, sales and marketing off the court, and even the location of the franchises. Meanwhile, the NBA has expanded roster sizes and added new player designations, such as two-way contract players who can shuttle back and forth between the NBA and G League, to encourage greater investment in the minor-league product. The G League will expand to 28 teams in 2019-20 and expects to have 30 affiliates to match the 30 NBA franchises within the next 18 months.
As the G League has added and relocated franchises, the convenience factor has sharply increased. The Santa Cruz Warriors, who relocated from North Dakota in 2012, are a prime example. Pitching a rehab stint in Bismarck in mid-December? Good luck. Coordinating a 75-minute drive down from Oakland? No problem.
Proximity has mattered for other franchises, too. The Los Angeles Lakers assigned guard Rajon Rondo to their South Bay affiliate, which plays its home games at the team's El Segundo practice facility. The Chicago Bulls have placed Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker with their Windy City affiliate, which plays just 25 minutes from downtown. When the Los Angeles Clippers sent Blake Griffin to practice with their Agua Caliente affiliate last season, they hand-delivered the competition to their star by bringing in the G League players from Ontario, California, to practice at their Playa Vista training facility.
According to data provided by the G League, the average distance between an NBA team and its G League affiliate this season is 142 miles — down sharply from 452 miles in 2013-14. That geographical shift has led to a corresponding spike in rehab assignments, which have long been common practice for Major League Baseball teams and their farm clubs. From 2013-14 to 2016-17, an average of five NBA players per year were sent to their G League affiliates to aid in their recoveries. Over the past 18 months, 19 players have undertaken rehab assignments, including six all-stars.
"Rehab assignments are another value-add for the G League," said Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who began his tenure as G League president on Monday. "You can use the G League to develop your young players and coaches, but you can also give players like Cousins the opportunity to get practice and game time. We've seen Tony Parker and Brandon Knight do it, too."
Location is one-half of the equation; commitment is the other. The Warriors have purposefully merged their NBA and G League operations whenever possible, utilizing similar strategies, play calls and terminology. Santa Cruz coach Aaron Miles joined the Warriors staff during the playoffs and training camp, Santa Cruz's strength coaches are in regular contact with their NBA counterparts, and the Warriors employ a coach who is dedicated to handling the franchise's two-way contract players.
The G League affiliate also mimics Golden State's marketing approaches, utilizing the same blue and yellow color scheme and handing out the same bobbleheads and replica championship rings to Santa Cruz fans that the Warriors dispense at Oracle Arena.
This comprehensive organizational "synergy," as Santa Cruz President Chris Murphy termed it, has enabled Santa Cruz to operate at a profit and cultivate 1,200 season ticket holders. It also perfectly set the table for Cousins' rehab stint, which occurred over three sessions in December during a quieter stretch of Santa Cruz's schedule.
"Up at Golden State, DeMarcus was doing a lot of two-on-two stuff," Miles said. "[Warriors coach] Steve Kerr told me he wanted DeMarcus to get up and down. Golden State practices, but they don't do a lot of scrimmaging, it's more fine details. We wanted to give Cousins what he needed. It was big for him to just play because it's been a year or so since he was in an NBA game."
Cousins, who tore his Achilles' tendon in January 2018 as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, went through full-court, five-on-five scrimmages that featured elongated halves to test his conditioning. The Warriors sent down Rick Celebrini, their director of sports medicine, to monitor his performance and members of their digital team to capture highlights for their website. Because Golden State tapes and analyzes all of Santa Cruz's practices and games using the PlaySight and Second Spectrum video services, Kerr's management had complete and immediate access to Cousins' workouts.
While it's tempting to picture Cousins barnstorming through Santa Cruz, laying waste to the overmatched competition in front of gawking crowds, that's not what happened. Instead, he teased his younger brother, Jaleel, a 6-10 center for Santa Cruz, and impressed his temporary teammates with his passing skills and outside shooting. The practices occurred in a near-empty gym and received little media attention. "It was business as usual," Murphy said. "We could have sold hundreds of tickets to the practice, but it was pretty cool to have a player of his caliber have a very comfortable experience."
Many of the players knew Cousins from Warriors training camp, which lightened the mood and made his appearance feel routine. "It wasn't like our team is a bunch of high school kids in awe," Jaleel Cousins said. "Santa Cruz is a professional setting, and this was a professional thing. DeMarcus was trash-talking, trying to motivate guys. Like with your friends playing backyard ball, you talk (expletive). He said, 'D-up. You can't guard me.' "
Miles and his players saw Cousins moving easily as he began to work his way back into game shape. He tested his leg in various situations: setting screens, rolling to the hoop, popping to the three-point line and pivoting through traffic. Miles' eyes lit up as he described how Kerr can use Cousins: by running split cuts off the big man to utilize his passing skills, and by dumping it to him in the post to set up an inside-out game for the Warriors' shooters.
When Santa Cruz huddled after practice, Cousins addressed the team, praising their collective talent and offering encouragement. "He said to keep grinding and he thanked everybody for playing five-on-five and doing extra for him," Jaleel Cousins said. "His message was, 'You guys could have said that you have a game coming up and you wanted to focus on yourselves, but I appreciate you allowing me to join you and helping me to get back to where I was.' "
Although the Warriors elected not to assign Cousins to play in a G League game, his Santa Cruz teammates still dreamed about the possibility. Guard Kendrick Nunn laughed at the idea of Cousins intimidating G League opponents, while forward Kevin Young imagined Miles force-feeding Cousins for "crazy numbers."
To Abdur-Rahim, the concept is no joke. After all, New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee logged 32 minutes in a December game with their Westchester affiliate while on a rehab assignment, another sign that minor-league stigma is fading. "I can absolutely see NBA players playing in G League games becoming a trend," said Abdur-Rahim. "It takes just one star who wants to play and get his rhythm. Then it would turn commonplace. The structure and the resources support it right now."
Without question, Cousins' return represents one of the key mileposts of the 2018-19 season. Kerr plans to start him at center, giving Golden State a starting five composed entirely of all-stars from a season ago (the last team with such a luxury was the 1975-76 Boston Celtics). If Cousins fits in and looks healthy, the Warriors are overwhelming favorites to claim their third straight title. If there are bumps or setbacks, the mercurial Cousins — known for his arguments with officials and occasional emotional outbursts — will become a lightning rod.
Santa Cruz's players noted that Cousins won't need to carry as heavy of a burden with the Warriors as he shouldered with the Sacramento Kings and Pelicans earlier in his career. Lee said that Cousins' repeated trips to Santa Cruz showed "how humble of a person he is," and Miles spoke positively of Cousins' demeanor and leadership during his visits.
Jaleel Cousins said his brother is "in a good place mentally" because the Warriors have "given him a lot of downtime" during his rehabilitation and because his comeback represents a chance to rewrite his reputation. "He's mingled with the team and meshed with them perfectly," Jaleel said. "He's not the monster everybody tries to make him out to be."
The Santa Cruz Warriors, like the rest of the basketball world, will be tuning into Cousins' first game, but only after they try to beat the Salt Lake City Stars in front of their 68th straight home sellout. "I've played in Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Iceland," Young mused. "In Argentina, we had seven fans in the stands at one game. Some places, basketball isn't everything. Here, it's like a family and we try to mimic the Warriors organization in every way. We all want each other to succeed."
If Golden State scores big with a healthy Cousins, credit Santa Cruz with the assist.